Sir John Hermon (right) retires as Chief C onstable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary this week. He talks to our North of Ireland correspondent, Stephen McBrearty, about the toughest job in policing.
NEWS ANALYSIS IN your eight years as Chief Constable of the RUC do you consider that police-community relations have improved?
Yes, very much and there are objective, independent facts to support what I am saying. Independent surveys of contact between the police and the public show that 80 per cent of the public are satisfied with the police response and over 70 per cent of those questioned said the police were doing a good or very good job. That's right across the political/ religious spectrum. Furthermore, our crime detection rate has over the past nine years been more than doubled and is now among the very best in the United Kingdom as a whole. In 1987 and again in 1988 there was a notable drop in crime.
Surely these things reflect more truly the relationship between the police and the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Political utterances, from one faction or another, aren't the best measurement of police/ public relationships yet they too often catch the headlines and are represented as fact.
I must emphasise, however, that we are committed to establishing even closer contact with the public and providing a better service. This desire is impeded by the abnormal conditions created by terrorism. The police have to take all sorts of precautions to protect their own lives and regrettably this detrimentally affects the nature of policing, particularly in some areas. At the same time, fear in the community caused by terrorist and paramilitary organisations inhibits a more open public relationship with the police.
Another consideration is the fact that the police service in Northern Ireland is bedevilled and held back by the continuing political impasse and failure to resolve the situation exacerbates the problems of policing. For various reasons policing today in most societies is difficult and complex. A society, divided on constitutional and political aims such as exist in Northern Ireland, inevitably creates considerable, indeed unique, difficulties for the police.
With specific reference to the minority Catholic community, an improvement in attitudes to the police has been noted by Bishop Cahal Daly. But he also feels that significant progress has yet to be made before the RUC is seen by most Catholics as an impartial and trusted force of law and order. Would you agree with that analysis, and what steps would you like to see taken to bring about such a situation?
The RUC has suffered appalling death and injury in protecting and serving all people of Northern Ireland. It is not an exaggeration to say that for years the police has been the cornerstone which has held this community together and prevented bloodshed and destruction on a vastly greater scale than has occurred. Certainly this has not been sufficiently or fairly acknowledged in the past, though increasingly it is being so. I was interested recently to note the comments of Senator John Murphy, an academic in the Republic of Ireland, in
stating that the RUC deserved the gratitude of citizens of the Republic of Ireland in defending that part of Ireland against Loyalist terrorists and being the first line of defence against Republican terrorism, given the IRA's declared aim of taking power in all of Ireland.
And very recently also, a southern newspaper commented that the RUC, "for so long in the front line of the battle against terrorism, deserve far more support than they have got from political leaders in the Republic, from the SDLP or from the North's Catholic Bishops". I must say, however, that the RUC is grateful for the considerable support which it receives from the community as a whole, including very many people within the minority. Furthermore, we are conscious of the need to he representative of the community we serve. It therefore follows that recruitment of suitable men and women from the Roman Catholic community will continue to be an important matter of Force policy.
Let there be no doubt: the RUC will do its duty to the people of Northern Ireland, without fear or favour. I do not have the space available to me in this article to go into detail but I would ask people to look objectively, without prejudice, at our record. Have we shown any bias in dealing with Republican or Loyalist terrorism? We most certainly have not. "Loyalist" terrorist criminality is a fraction of that committed by "Republican" terrorists, yet the attrition rate against those so-called Loyalists is about three times greater.
Have we shown any bias in facing up to people who challenge public order or try to by-pass the democratic process? We have not. Is is sufficiently recognised that in dealing successfully with the extreme Loyalist reaction to the AngloIrish Agreement, 550 police homes were attacked and over 140 families were permanently evacuated from their homes?
Furthermore, I invite your readers to examine our "Professional Policing Ethics" the code which sets out the ethos of the RUC and details the professional and personal conduct expected of our members. This is a central feature of our initial training for recruits to the Force and permeates all aspects of police training and instruction.
We in the RUC very much want to establish a closer relationship with that section of the minority community which is alienated from us, as we also do with the extreme Protestant elements. They and we have suffered dreadfully as a result of terrorist criminality. It is in both our interests to come together in working for peace, harmony and reconciliation. More dialogue and understanding is necessary. We have gone quite some of the way together. But I agree that jointly there is much more to be done. That is the way forward.
The specific nature of the problems of the north of Ireland has meant that your 91 years as Chief Constable has seen intense media scrutiny of your actions, and that of the Force you head. Do you feel such coverage has been fair and that an accurate picture of the problems of policing in Northern Ireland has been conveyed?
There is no doubt that the RUC is unremittingly under the microscope of media and public scrutiny. I don't object to that. It's part of the democratic process. It's healthy. But just as the police are not perfect or infallible, I would suggest that the news media and politicians don't always get it right either. At times the RUC has suffered from unjustified and unfair criticism or irresponsible and untruthful reporting. That we do object to. Truth has suffered greatly in Northern Ireland. Too often people's prejudices, their perceptions, become their "truth".
In particular you have been the victim of serious allegations by John Stalker, allegations that up to now you have chosen not to respond to because of various legal processes underway. Do you anticipate clearing the points raised by Mr Stalker at any time in the future?
At long last the truth is emerging and damaging allegations against the RUC and myself are being proved to be false. The fact is that Mr John Stalker and Mr Colin Sampson (who completed the investigation) both stated that there was no "shoot to kill" policy. Furthermore, in a recent libel action to clear my name in this matter 1 was awarded substantial damages and an apology, which I regard as a complete vindication of my position.
The terms of the apology acknowledged that I had acted in a professional and honourable manner. Also, the defendants made it clear that it
was never their intention to suggest that I had obstructed John Stalker's inquiry or that I had acted in a bigoted or sectarian fashion. 1 need only add that a number of my officers have taken legal action to clear their names and to date all have been completely successful. A further legal action by three senior officers of the Greater Manchester Police Force is also vindication of the senior officers in that force and the RUC. The three officers involved received damages and full legal costs from the Manchester Evening News.
The case involved articles alleging a. conspiracy of freemasons holding senior positions in the RUC, Greater Manchester Police Authority and the Greater Manchester Police to obstruct Mr Stalker's enquiry at a crucial stage by victimising Mr Stalker and engineering his removal from the enquiry. The apology stated that "These grave charges were entirely untrue . ." "The plaintiffs were not involved in any conspiracy, nor were they party to any attempt to frustrate Mr Stalker's enquiry or to instigate or orchestrate allegations against him or to victimise him in any way". The Manchester Evening News ". . . . acknowledged that the grave allegations should never have been published and apologised to them for the distress and embarrassment the articles had caused them."
You have dealt with four Secretaries of State as Chief Constable Humphrey Atkins, Jim Prior, Douglas Hurd and Tom King. Do you feel that British ministers are in a position to do more than engage in an exercise of "damage control" in Northern Ireland? You are inviting me to become involved in politics! I shall resist the temptation. I have always made it clear that politics is not my business nor is it the RUC's.
We are apolitical. I will only say that I fervently want to sec a solution. The people of Ulster have suffered enough. Surely it is time for people, whatever their political or other differences, to come together through the democratic process to find a means of restoring peace and harmony, of harnessing the tremendous energy and talents of the Ulster people. I believe that there is a huge responsibility on all our political leaders to lead their people forward into better times. I know or the strong desire throughout all lawabiding people in Northern Ireland for peace, reconciliation and an acceptable form of self government here.
Do you envisage a day when the British Army could withdraw from Northern Ireland and leave the maintenance of law and order to the police?
Since the partition of Ireland in 1922 there has always been an Army garrison in Northern Ireland. Its total removal would also have far-reaching constitutional and political implications which are not for me to make comment upon.
What we arc actually talking about is getting the Army off the streets and back to their barracks. That is our objective. The objective is normality and troops on the streets is abnormal. Over the years, of course, the strength of the Regular Army in Northern Ireland has been more than halved from a peak of 22,000 in the early seventies to its current level of 10,200. I think John Hume made a telling point a few months ago when he said: "Even Joe Soap has the intelligence to know that if the IRA campaign were to cease then the troops would very soon be off our streets."
I do envisage this happening but terrorist crime must be stopped it is now the only reason for a military presence on our streets and roads.